|John Baxter's J.G. Ballard Bio?
'Unwarranted... Prurient Gloss'
says David Pringle
John Baxter's disappointing biography The Inner Man: The Life of J. G. Ballard (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20), begins with these two short paragraphs (Introduction, page one):
"On 28 December 1970, J. G. Ballard, not yet well known for Crash and Empire of the Sun, wrote to his Danish translator Jannick Storm thanking him for a Christmas card and the letter that accompanied it, and complimenting him on the erotic illustrations that enlivened both. Encouraged by these, he solicited Storm's help in finding some examples of 'automobile pornography' -- not as research, but for his private delectation. He outlined the type he preferred -- no photographs of nude women sprawled over bonnets, but, rather, stories of a more secret sort: a beautiful Nordic blonde secretary services her boss in the back seat of a Mercedes; a honeymoon couple stranded in their car consummate their marriage in some pull-over or parking lot. The request was, he stressed, not lightly made. Such material, he said, was 'extremely important' to him.
"Had any other British novelist of Ballard's stature written this letter, its exposure at the opening of his biography would have aroused controversy, conceivably even damaged his reputation. In the context of Jim Ballard's career, however, it will barely excite comment."
Note the word "exposure." Baxter is exposing Ballard to us, by quoting this letter -- so he suggests. A reviewer (David Evans, in the Independent on Sunday, 11 September 2011) has already described this biography as "mealy-mouthed," and I think the words following "exposure" in Baxter's second paragraph are a prime example of what the reviewer means. This letter would have aroused controversy, the biographer says, and would have "conceivably even damaged" Ballard's reputation; but, oh no, he suggests, we're all too broad-minded here for it to excite comment. Nevertheless Baxter has made it the subject of his opening paragraph, in the transparent hope that it will shock the reader and seize attention. The placing of such material in the opening sentences, followed by a pious disclaimer, is indeed mealy-mouthed.
I have a copy of Ballard's letter to Jannick Storm of 28 December 1970 -- a scan of the original, which I provide herewith so that all can see it -- and I think that Baxter badly misrepresents it by selective quotation and a failure to explain the context. Crucially, Ballard goes on to say, in this quite short letter: "As for the novel. Completed the first draft just before Xmas, and will take me another 2-3 months before completion. A great deal of work remains to be done."
The novel in question was Crash. There is no doubt about that, as Ballard had stated in an interview given just the month before (to Jim Goddard, editor of the fanzine Cypher): "I have, at the time of this interview, November 12th 1970, just completed the first draft of a long novel on sex and the automobile."
Baxter doesn't tell us this. It is not until much later in his biography that we discover Ballard was busy writing Crash in 1970. In the event, it would take Ballard a good deal longer than another two or three months to finish the book to his satisfaction. It was eventually delivered to his publishers, Jonathan Cape, in February 1972. Clearly, at Christmas-time, 1970, Ballard was still very much in the midst of it. "A great deal of work," as he said, remained to be done.
And yet, Baxter states that Ballard "solicited Storm's help in finding some examples of 'automobile pornography' -- not as research, but for his private delectation." In my view, the phrases "not as research" and "for his private delectation" are completely unwarranted by anything in the Ballard letter to Storm. They are John Baxter's own prurient gloss. By ignoring the fact, alluded to in the letter itself, that Ballard was in the middle of writing Crash, Baxter makes it sound as though Ballard was interested in Danish pornography involving motor-cars purely in order to satisfy his own sexual urges.
We can't read the mind of the man, forty-odd years on, but I think the fact that he was enagaged on a novel about "sex and the automobile" probably had a great deal of bearing on the request he made of Storm. His interest in auto-porn was, primarily, a matter of "research." It is true that Ballard says "this is very important to me" (not "extremely important" -- that's a misquotation by Baxter), but I don't read that as a confession of private lusts; rather, it is a simple statement that such material was important to him as a writer, as a stimulus to his imagination in the task upon which he was engaged.
Baxter should also have explained the social context of the times. Storm was in Denmark, a country which Ballard never visited but which was much in the news in the late 1960s. A few years before the Ballard/Storm correspondence, Denmark had abolished all censorship of printed matter and films, at least as regards sexual content. Scandinavian films featuring much nudity and discussion of sex, such as I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967), had achieved international notoriety. In November 1969, Copenhagen had hosted what was billed as the world's first "Sex Fair." Jannick Storm, still in his twenties in 1970, was writing to Ballard against this background. Apparently, he had sent Ballard some examples of soft porn, and Ballard was responding to that. "What beautiful girls you know," he joked in his letter, "I must become a Danish writer."
Ballard, deep in the writing of Crash, his most extreme novel -- an act of "willed madness" as he later described it -- simply took advantage of the opportunity to ask Storm if he knew of any examples of Danish "automobile pornography" as germane to the project he had in hand. No more than that can be read into the letter, in my view. John Baxter's use of it to suggest that Ballard had some deep personal kink with regard to sex and cars is quite unjustified.
Copyright © David Pringle, 11 September 2011